Johannesburg: South Africa's president visited a gravely ill Nelson Mandela in the hospital on Wednesday night, and canceled a visit planned for the next day to Mozambique, an indication of heightened concern over the deteriorating health of the man widely considered the father of the country.
President Jacob Zuma found 94-year-old Mandela to still be in critical condition during the 10 pm visit and was briefed by doctors "who are still doing everything they can to ensure his well-being," Zuma's office said in a statement.
It said the president decided to cancel a visit to Maputo, the Mozambican capital, on Thursday, where he was to attend a meeting on regional investment.
As worries over Mandela mounted, Mac Maharaj, the presidential spokesman, declined to comment on media reports that the former president and anti-apartheid leader was on life support systems in the Pretoria hospital where he was taken June 8 to be treated for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.
"I cannot comment on the clinical details of these reports because that would breach the confidentiality of the doctor/patient relationship," Maharaj said in an interview with South Africa's Radio 702.
South Africans were torn on Wednesday between the desire not to lose Mandela, who defined the aspirations of so many of his compatriots, and resignation that the beloved former prisoner and president is approaching the end of his life.
The sense of anticipation and foreboding about Mandela's fate has grown since late Sunday, when the South African government declared that the condition of the statesman had deteriorated. A tide of emotional tributes has built on social media and in hand-written messages and flowers laid outside the hospital and Mandela's home. On Wednesday, about 20 children from a day care center posted a hand-made card outside the hospital and recited a poem.
"Hold on, old man," was one of the lines in the Zulu poem, according to the South African Press Association.
In recent days, international leaders, celebrities, athletes and others have praised Mandela, not just as the man who steered South Africa through its tense transition from white racist rule to democracy two decades ago, but as a universal symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation.
In South Africa's Eastern Cape province, where Mandela grew up, a traditional leader said the time was near for Mandela, who is also known by his clan name, Madiba.
"I am of the view that if Madiba is no longer enjoying life, and is on life support systems, and is not appreciating what is happening around him, I think the good Lord should take the decision to put him out of his suffering," said the tribal chief, Phathekile Holomisa.